Salvador Dali
A museum assistant poses in front of paintings of surrealist artists Salvador Dali of Spain and Rene Magritte of Belgium Image Credit: Reuters

San Francisco: For an art heist, it was a simple affair. A man ducked into a San Francisco gallery and walked out less than a minute later holding one of its best pieces: a $20,000 Salvador Dali etching.

"I was alone at the gallery and turned my back for a minute, and when I looked, it was gone," Rasjad Hopkins, an associate director of the gallery, said Tuesday. "I never saw the person."

The artwork, a limited-edition hand-colored 1960s surrealist etching titled "La Girafe en Feu," or "The Giraffe on Fire," had been sitting on an easel at the gallery, Dennis Rae Fine Art, when it was taken Sunday.

Normally, the Spanish artist's work would be tethered to the easel, Hopkins said, but on the day of the theft it was not. A security camera in the gallery was not turned on at the time.

But surveillance footage of the incident obtained by ABC7 News, which Hopkins said he watched with police, shows a man in a blue cap and a blue Nike shirt enter the gallery, with a second person in pink pants waiting outside. The man then appears to make his escape with the etching in his right hand.

The piece is one of seven original etchings from a suite of work influenced by Pablo Picasso known as "Tauromachie SurrEaliste," which translates to "Surrealist bullfighting."

"It could be quickly identified," said Joan Kropf, chief curator at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. The piece was insured, one of 100 works printed on a special kind of paper known as japon, and the gallery had obtained it from a French museum, Hopkins said.

While the etching was listed at $20,000 by Dennis Rae Fine Art, it could sell for as much as $27,500, said Bruce Hochman, who is the proprietor of a gallery in San Juan Capistrano, California, devoted to authentic works by Dali and who also publishes an annual pricing guide for the artist's work. But that does not mean that the etching is worth that amount or that the thief would be able to sell it at that price, Hochman said.

What the thief might do with "La Girafe en Feu" is unclear. Galleries who recognize the work as stolen may report it to authorities. Pawn shops often ask for identification. The thief could try to start a bidding war on eBay, which could bring the wrong kind of attention. Or he could simply install it in his living room and admire it.

San Francisco police confirmed in an email that they were investigating the theft of a Dali etching. It was stolen by an unidentified suspect between 4.40pm and 5.45pm Sunday, they said, urging those with information to come forward.

It was not the first time someone has walked out of an art gallery or show having carried out a remarkably nonchalant theft. At a 2004 show in San Francisco honoring what would have been Dali's 100th birthday, someone stole a minor work but later mailed it back, Hochman said.

In January, a man walked out of a gallery in Moscow with a $182,000 painting, which was quickly recovered.

But in San Francisco, with the thief still at large, the daring stunt has left lingering questions.

"I can tell you this: I did not sleep that night," Hopkins said. "I kept thinking, 'What could I have done?' "